South Downs National Park

From the pages of the January 2010 Downsman

Nick Herbert is the MP for Arundel and South Downs and he shadows Hilary Benn for the Conservative Party. Here he tells John Songhurst and Jacquetta Fewster his thoughts on issues affecting the South Downs, how proud he is to be the MP, and how his heart lifts every time he travels from London to the South Downs.

"I feel incredibly lucky to live in this area and to represent it. I share the enthusiasm for the Downs that the members of the South Downs Society feel." Nick Herbert MP

What are the biggest opportunities and challenges for the South Downs over the next decade?

It is important all governments remain committed to the National Parks and to protecting them. They are the crown jewels of our landscape and have a very important part to play in terms of public enjoyment of the countryside and bridging the divide between country and town. As a National Park that is in relatively close proximity to London and to other highly-populated areas, the South Downs provides a huge opportunity for enjoyment of the countryside. A special challenge relates to its size. The Lake District was the biggest National Park with a population of 42,000. We have 120,000 people and it will have to be handled differently. Perhaps the most important thing is to make sure local communities are included. That will mean being careful about the arrangements for accountability and consultation. Much of what I see locally that is successful is about partnership and voluntary effort.

What do you think about the provision of broadband to rural communities and how could it be speeded up?

The provision of broadband at the moment is inadequate. The digital divide is going to get much worse when we have high-speed broadband rolled out to about 70% of the country, meaning rural areas will lose out badly. I think that rural regeneration and prosperity depend on being connected. There are issues about the very large capital cost of rolling out high speed broadband to the whole country. We need to look at innovative community-led solutions involving the farming community with government in the role of facilitator.

You have been critical of the creation of a National Park in the South Downs. How will you work to ensure a positive and vibrant future for the National Park?

I have always recognised there are arguments for and against the National Park and I have always been willing to engage in them. On balance I would not have confirmed the National Park because of my concerns about accountability. The decision has been made, and the important thing now is to make the park a success and bring along all the people who have big concerns about it. I've said I think the important thing in this unusually large park with an unusually large population and with an unusually large amount of land that is farmed is that it will be very important to look at the accountability arrangements, the devolution of planning decisions, and making sure there is strong engagement with the farming community. Success will be down to good leadership and the willingness to engage and consult and not to dictate. It is only through the goodwill of the farmers doing the right thing that we can achieve the outcomes that we want.

What message do you have for farmers?

The first message which I hope they will receive from everyone is one of reassurance that they are not going to be overridden and that they are the most important people when it comes to ensuring we have a protected landscape. They have a hugely positive role to play and we must listen to their concerns. If they were to talk to colleagues in other parks they would see there are huge opportunities of being in a park. We should be looking to help them and other local businesses maximise those opportunities.

What is your party's position on additional housing in the South East and in protected landscapes?

The pressure on housing is one of the biggest issues I have had to deal with. In West Sussex, 73,000 additional houses are planned in response to the government's housing targets. I believe this is completely unsustainable. We don't have the infrastructure, the local services, and above of all would be the huge loss of countryside. We have said we will scrap the top down housing target, and the regional spatial strategies. Of course we do need more affordable housing. I think we can provide that at a sensible level if the decision is taken by the local village, done on a sustainable basis, and if the housing can be kept for local housing and not sold off. The balancing act for all National Parks is not to stifle rural enterprise and yet to protect the landscape.

What is your favourite walk?

The place I tend to get up to most is Arundel Park. I can walk from my house in Arundel. The place I absolutely love there is at Peppering. It gives you that splendid view out across Arundel Castle, over the plain and then the sea. The views in all four directions are absolutely stunning, unbroken and unspoilt.

Michelle Taylor